Is Bipolar Disorder a Mental Disorder?
When you hear the term bipolar disorder, what comes to mind? If you’re like most people, you probably think of mental illness. You might imagine someone who, due to a personal weakness, can’t control their mood swings and is wildly imbalanced. You may even think it’s a character flaw that causes them to have trouble with relationships, job performance, and schoolwork.
You’d be wrong.
Bipolar disorder is not a “mental illness”, it’s a brain disorder. It’s rooted in the biological functioning of the 3-pound supercomputer between the ears. Abnormal activity in the brain is associated with the severe ups and downs in mood, energy, and activity levels that are the hallmark signs of bipolar disorder.
Making this discovery changes everything about the way people with bipolar disorder, their families, and the rest of us should think about the condition.
Why A 53-Year-Old Woman Refused to Believe She Had a Problem
Sandy was 53 when her family took her to a hospital for help with her behavior. It wasn’t the first time. Just one month earlier, they had had her committed to another psychiatric hospital for delusional thinking and bizarre behavior—she had actually ripped out all the electrical wiring in her home because she heard voices coming from the walls. In addition to these symptoms, she was barely getting any sleep, her thoughts raced wildly, and she was irritable.
Her doctor diagnosed her with bipolar disorder (a cyclical mood disorder characterized by extreme mood swings from manic episodes to depressive episodes) and placed her on lithium (an anti-manic medication) and an anti-anxiety medication. After responding well, Sandy was sent home. But she didn’t want to believe that anything was wrong with her, and she stopped taking both medications. Her belief was actually supported by some members of her family who openly told her she didn’t need pills and that doctors prescribe them only to force patients into numerous follow-up visits.
Their advice was ill-fated, and within weeks of stopping the treatment, Sandy’s strange behavior returned. This was when her family made the decision to take her to the hospital. Once again, Sandy was extremely paranoid. Believing that everyone was trying to hurt her, she was always looking for ways to escape from the hospital. Her thoughts were delusional—she believed she had special powers and that others were trying to take them from her. At times, she also appeared very “spacy.” Sandy didn’t think there was anything wrong with herself, and her family was at a loss.
What Sandy’s Brain Revealed
In an attempt to understand what was going on with Sandy and to convince her that at least part of her problems were biological, her physician ordered a brain imaging study called SPECT. Normally a very simple procedure, it proved challenging with Sandy and required three separate tries. The first two times she ripped out the intravenous line, saying the clinicians were trying to poison her. The third time was a success because her sister stayed with her and calmed her down by talking her through the experience. The SPECT scans revealed increased activity in her limbic system and patchy increased activity overall. In other words, some areas showed increased activity, and some showed decreased activity. Brain imaging studies show that cyclic mood disorders often correlate with focal areas of increased activity in the limbic system specifically as well as too much activity across the surface of the brain.
Sandy’s Bipolar Brain
For Sandy’s family, this was powerful evidence that her problems were biological, not moral. As a result, when she refused medication, they were now willing to encourage her to take it. After she accepted their advice, her behavior normalized again. Once Sandy saw her brain scans, she agreed to follow a treatment plan that included medication.
How Seeing Her Brain Scan Helped Heal Her Symptoms
Seeing her own brain helped Sandy overcome one of the most clinically significant problems in people diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This brain disorder is usually responsive to medication. The problem is that when people with this condition improve, many feel so normal they do not believe they ever had a problem to begin with. It is difficult for them to accept that they have to continue taking medication when they think they no longer have a problem. Yet, prematurely stopping medication actually increases the chances of relapsing.
For Sandy, the brain scans visually demonstrated the biological nature of her mood swings and delusional thinking. Ultimately, this allowed her to understand the need to treat her condition and helped her avoid the relapses she had experienced in the past.
At Amen Clinics, where Sandy was treated, we use brain SPECT imaging as part of an overall evaluation to show our patients the biological nature of “mental health” disorders. Using brain scans helps our physicians more accurately diagnose and treat brain-based conditions, such as bipolar disorder.
If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder or has been diagnosed with the condition and treatment isn’t working, getting an accurate diagnosis is critical to finding the relief you want from your symptoms. To find out how we can help you or a loved one, call to speak to a specialist at 888-288-9834 or schedule a visit.